Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss.
They were young and beautiful and kissing, two brown-skinned girls on a red leather banquette; kissing as people do when they are hungry and soaring and, usually, alone. They weren’t alone, wedged there between the thick seats and small tables at the Lenox Lounge in Harlem. Nobody barked, “Get a room!” Life swirled easily about them, dollar bills passing from hand to hand across the crowd to the fellow behind the bar; beers all around or cocktails and high-pitched chatter, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for two girls on a banquette to be drinking each other in, one long gulp, then another; a taste, a tease, a head thrown back in laughter and an arm bent high to catch her stiff-brimmed hat before it fell.
That was election day, an age ago, it seems. Like the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square on V-J Day in Eisenstaedt’s storied photograph, like the boy gripping his girlfriend’s bottom as she leaps to embrace him in a shadowed hall on the day Stalin died in Komar and Melamid’s luscious painting Thirty Years Ago 1953, those amorous girls in an Art Deco bar were the iconic image of social happiness, November 4, 2008.
For a moment, a few hours, the world, or at least Harlem, was passionate and in love. Not with Barack Obama, with itself–each one with the friend or stranger by his side and beyond to the next one, and the next after that, a common love expressed commonly, in hands squeezed or swinging hugs or deep, public kisses. “Love is in the air, people,” a drummer on the uptown 1 train had announced earlier in the day, and later it was in the streets. A million glances were exchanged that electric night; a million fingers brushed lightly against each other. Zing! Who knows how many awoke the next morning in the arms of someone no longer a stranger? If there were none, it wouldn’t matter; that it was possible was the thing. People were alive and in love with possibility.
In an instant it was over, as it had to be. Elections are not revolutions. Nor are presidents even particularly sturdy progressives. By definition they crook the knee to capital, and concede, simply by running for the job at the top of the nuclear heap, a willingness to commit mass murder. Obama couldn’t be “one of us” any more than his predecessors could. And yet, on the cusp of the inaugural, some leftists are disappointed, angry, glumly awaiting the inevitable celebrations like party kisses on New Year’s Eve, surface exuberance masking the essential emptiness of the ritual. Some who were once full of hope now grouse about the dreadful cabinet picks or strain for positive explanations as the bigot Rick Warren prepares his inaugural blessing. Those who were always cynical regard the popular effusions over the first black president as simple-minded, hysterical, swoony.
But the job of the left is not to be hopeful in or even angry at presidents, and it is not to scold the people. An insidious aspect of the recent period, and particularly the past eight years, has been the gross personalization of politics, the obsession with venal or greedy or supposedly stupid leaders, with the lies and corruptions of persons rather than the crushing nature of class relations and corrupt systems. So Bush is an idiot. Clinton was a dog. Obama is a hero or a fraud. “The left”? What is it? A term so hazy in concept that right-wing radio applies it to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid without being laughed off the air, and the only live demand that almost anyone else associated with it in November was marriage.
Clearly, the radical imagination needs an airing. So let us pause, amid the muddle of the moment, in this season of renewal and fresh starts, to consider fundamental things. Let us pause to reflect on the iconography of that kiss, so thick with refusals and affirmations.
First, the kiss was carnal, not marital; an expression of being, rather than legal right or obligation. As gay marriage advocates simultaneously mourned the success of Proposition 8 in California, the kissing pair in the merry crowd wordlessly declared that sexuality isn’t a right or a privilege any more than smiling is, or skin color. Intrinsic to being, it is un-legislatable, un-votable, in any moral world. The California campaign for marriage had been mum on sex. On one level, that was logical; marriage is a property contract, a business arrangement, a religious sacrament granted the color of law. But like every antigay ballot initiative since the 1970s, Prop 8 was at base a referendum on sex, the kind deserving of reward versus the kind that ought to be damned to hell. Kissing puts sex at the center of the story. Those two women might want to get married tomorrow, but what they symbolized was that passion is its own reward. And if, morally, sexual ardor is not votable, neither should it be the ticket–for anyone–to health insurance or old-age pensions or wages or tax breaks or any properly social benefit granted limitedly to contractual couples on the expectation that they will have sex and, by hook or by crook, reproduce the workforce.
Second, it was a public liberty, at once intensely intimate (there is a reason that kissing on the mouth is often the line that workers who are paid for sex will not cross) and part of a communal groove. For decades courts have settled issues of sexual freedom on the basis of privacy. Privacy matters; everyone wants it, even as we are pummeled to expect less and less. But unmoored from an ethic of equality and human solidarity, privacy also provides a weasel’s excuse: You know, I don’t care what people do in their bedroom, but I don’t want to hear about it, know about it, see it; I don’t want to know, OK? And in the broader political economy, it is capitalism’s pinched concession to liberty, the sweetener in a compulsory package of private property, private gain, private political deals, privatization and You’re on your own, Jack. If the popular energy on display that night in Harlem offered the merest glimpse of another world, the kiss distilled its many virtues. Yes, a thousand times yes, it said, to liberty but also equality; to sensuality but also common feeling; to romantic love but also class solidarity.
That last because, finally, the kiss took place among the plain people, workers all, in a setting of idleness and creative pleasure, in a neighborhood historically home to the black working class, to some of the great popular contributions to world culture, and to a towering movement for human freedom. Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” at the Lenox Lounge in 1939, the year it opened. Langston Hughes listened to jazz in the zebra-striped back room, as did James Baldwin and Malcolm X. Those are now talking points on a tour guide’s cheat sheet, as this last of New York’s original Art Deco jazz clubs has become a destination, and Harlem, until the crash, a developer’s playground and dispossession zone. They figure in the iconography of the kiss not as nostalgia (Baldwin couldn’t kiss his boyfriend in the Lenox Lounge) but as markers along the resistance road that made it possible for those women to be there openly loving each other that night. There are a lot of griefs as well as giddiness along that road, a lot of broken rules and broken hearts, no presidents but a lot of nameless people who made history and who, against the odds and the wars, the attack of the bankers and bought government, will have to make it again.